Herbs for Sleep: What's the Real Deal?

Bradley Keys · May 11 2023

Sleep problems – they're a part of modern life. Late nights, stress, and the constant blue light from our screens can cause occasional sleeplessness in even the drowsiest of us. And about 10% of us have an ongoing sleep disorder, according to the Sleep Foundation.

Supplements may have helped millions get to sleep. But what's behind the plant names on the label? And how do they work with your body's natural systems?

Read on to learn more about the best herbs to help you sleep, how to use them, and what you can look forward to!

Why Try Herbs to Help You Sleep?

If you've been dealing with sleep problems for a while, why try herbs for sleep? It's easy to dismiss them as another thing that won't work.

But sleep medications often come with a long list of side effects, to say nothing of the addictive potential of some. The best herbs for sleep, on the other hand, have been used to treat sleeplessness for thousands of years.

Modern science is also able to show how these herbs may work to produce their calming effects. While none of these herbs have been approved by the FDA, they have attracted a lot of interest from doctors and sleep researchers alike.

Always talk to your doctor before adding herbs to help you sleep to your routine. While generally safe, supplements do have contraindications and can interact with some medications.

Sleep Hygiene: Set Yourself Up for Snoozing

Any remedy for sleeplessness, whether it's herbs to help you sleep or something else, will work better if you take the time to get your sleep hygiene in order. Don't be worried about having the “perfect” environment for sleep – even small changes to your bedroom and nighttime routine can make a huge difference.

  • Keep it dark. Light affects your body's production of melatonin (more on that later). Keep your sleeping space as dark as possible, and keep any blinds and curtains closed. Don't be afraid to try an eye mask, either – they really work!
  • Put the phone away. Easier said than done, we know! If you're having trouble being device-less, start with a 10-15 minute break before bed and work up to the hour suggested by sleep doctors.
  • Chill out. Your body's core temperature lowers at night. You can help it along by taking a hot shower before bed or setting your thermostat on a timer.
  • Consistency is king. Your body doesn't distinguish between weekdays and weekends; it wants to have the same sleep pattern all the time! This doesn't mean you can never stay up late, but just be aware it could disrupt your sleep for more than just that night.
  • Eat right. You should eat about three hours before bedtime. That's long enough that digestion is less likely to impact your sleep but not so long that you're going to bed hungry.
  • Drop the booze. Sure, alcohol can make you sleepy. But it can make you wake up early as the alcohol leaves your body. It can impact your overall quality of sleep, as well.
  • Schedule your caffeine. No matter how tired you are, try to keep caffeine consumption limited to the morning.

Valerian Root

Historical Facts

This herb has been recognized as one of the best herbs for sleep since at least ancient Greece. The fathers of medicine, Galen and Hippocrates, wrote enthusiastically about it.

Throughout the middle ages and early modern period, valerian was still in use as a remedy for nervousness, heart palpitations, and headaches. And as medicine shortages hit the British public during WWII, valerian was relied on to calm the fraying nerves of those living through the nightly bombing raids of the Blitz.

Valerian was used less in the West after new sleep medications like barbituates and methaqualone (better known by its brand name Quaalude) came on the market. As these drugs fell out of favor, thanks to their side effects and abuse potential, scientists began to be a bit more interested in the humble valerian plant and other herbs for sleep.

What Does It Do?

Scientists think that valerian acts by releasing GABA from nerve endings in the brain. It also prevents those cells from reabsorbing GABA and is a source of glutamate, a precursor to GABA that can pass the blood-brain barrier.

What is GABA? It's an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it calms down the neurons in your brain. As you might expect, GABA plays an important role in sleep – most medication for insomnia targets the GABA system in some way.

Even though valerian is one of the better-studied herbs for sleep, there is still a lot we don't know. But it looks like it may increase the level of GABA in your brain without the side effects that other drugs can have.

What to Look Out for

Talk with your doctor before taking a supplement that contains valerian. If you're taking an herbal supplement (including other herbs to help you sleep, like kava or St. John's Wort) or medication like barbiturates or benzodiazepines, valerian may interfere. It also may not be suitable for pregnant or nursing people.


Historical Facts

Hops are a plant native to Europe, and we first see them in 736 CE in what is now Germany. The first known case of hops being used in beer is in 1079. 

Unlike valerian, it took a while for people to think of the medical potential of hops and recognize them as one of the best herbs for sleep. But by the 16th century, physicians like Paracelsus were prescribing hops as a diuretic and to “clean the blood.”

People were also starting to realize that hops could be one of the best herbs for sleep. George III famously slept on hop-filled pillows to ease his anxiety. No doubt that being on his side in the Revolutionary War was stressful!

Far away from Europe, Native American tribes also used the hop plant as medicine. The Delaware and Fox tribes both used hops as one of a number of herbs to help you sleep.

What Does It Do?

Animal studies have proposed that hops seem to slow down nighttime activity. Another animal study suggested that a compound in hops called humulone seems to both reduce sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and increase sleep duration.

That second study argues that humulone potentiates GABA transmission. That is to say, it increases how effective GABA is in slowing down your brain. 

And there's still more to discover about hops. Humulus lupulus is distantly related to the cannabis plant and shares about 73% of its genome. That suggests a wealth of potentially helpful compounds for scientists to study.

What to Look Out for

Hops can change how some medications are broken down in the liver, so be sure to check with your doctor before taking a supplement containing hops. Hops also contain chemicals that may have an estrogen-like effect, so talk to your doctor if you're taking estrogen or other herbal supplements.


Historical Facts

L-theanine was only isolated in 1949. But the fact that it was isolated from green tea suggests that humans have been using this compound without knowing about it for a long time.

Though not commonly thought of as one of the best herbs for sleep, tea was used as both food and medicine in China, Japan, and Korea. In Chinese traditional medicine, green tea is considered to be yin, or cooling. It was commonly drunk after meals as a digestion aid and to prevent heartburn.

L-theanine is also thought to be the reason that green tea is less likely to give you caffeine jitters than coffee. Scientists hypothesize that this calming chemical can alleviate some of caffeine's side effects.

What Does It Do?

L-theanine has been suggested to increase serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels in the brain. Increased levels of those three neurotransmitters can lead to a feeling of calm and well-being that can make sleep far easier.

Theanine may also stimulate alpha wave activity in the brain. Alpha waves are a kind of electrical activity in your brain, and they generally mark the transition from wakefulness into sleep. Your brain shows a lot of these waves during meditation or when you're lying in bed relaxing.

What to Look Out for

Talk to your doctor before taking L-theanine. It can interact with drugs that lower blood pressure or treat ADHD.


Historical Facts

Chamomile is an ancient plant native to Eurasia. It's also a herbal medicine superstar and was a vital home remedy from the Indian subcontinent to the British Isles.

Ancient Egyptians saw chamomile as a gift from the gods and used it to treat a wide variety of ailments. In ancient Greek and Roman times, the herb was used as a treatment for menstrual irregularity and skin conditions, in addition to it being considered one of the best herbs for sleep.

Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, Germany was especially fond of this fragrant flowering plant. German settlers were the first to cultivate chamomile on a large scale in the US, and it soon became a popular American folk remedy.

Modern medicine's focus on chamomile tends to focus on its potential as a treatment for anxiety and occasional sleeplessness.

What Does It Do?

Chamomile's relaxing effects may have something to do with a chemical called apigenin. This binds with what's known as the benzodiazepine (BDZ) receptor

The BDZ receptor is a special site on the GABA receptor – stimulating the BDZ site makes the GABA receptor much more receptive to any GABA in the synapse.

So, chamomile may be a way to stimulate the BDZ receptor without the hefty side effect profile and addiction potential of actual benzodiazepines.

What to Look Out for

Talk to your doctor if you're already taking benzodiazepines – chamomile can interfere with how they work. Taking chamomile may also exacerbate your seasonal allergies, especially if you're allergic to ragweed.

Chamomile also contains several compounds that may affect the way blood clots. Avoid taking it with aspirin or an NSAID pain reliever.


Historical Facts

Passionflower can refer to any one of 700 species in the family Passifloricae. Most of them are native to the Americas, and the plant has a long history of medicinal use.

Members of the Cherokee tribe used a passion flower poultice to treat wounds, and the Houma tribe made a blood tonic from the roots. European colonists were so impressed with the various medicinal uses of passionflower that they brought the plant back to Europe.

It wasn't long before people discovered that passionflower made a soothing and calming tea right before bed. Today, the plant is recognized as one of the best herbs for sleep.

What Does It Do?

There's a wide variety of chemicals in passion flowers, and many of them could be responsible for the plant's calming power. However, there is an amount of apigenin, the same ingredient that's responsible for some of chamomile's effects.

Whatever chemicals are in passionflower, they seem to work. A small human study proposed that a dosage of passiflora incanta extract is just as effective as oxazepam, a powerful benzodiazapene.

With such a large family of passionflower plants, future studies could yield even more natural remedies and herbs to help you sleep.

What to Look Out for

Passionflower can lead to ataxia (uncoordinated movement) and dizziness. It also may induce uterine contractions in pregnant people.

Lemon Balm

Historical Facts

Lemon balm is native to Europe and has been used since ancient times to flavor wine and treat wounds. Sometime around the middle ages, the plant began to be thought to potentially be one of the best herbs for sleep and a general anxiety relief.

The plant has also long been used to attract honey bees to gardens. In fact, the genus name Melissa is the Greek for honeybee. The Tudors were particularly fond of lemon balm and planted it in large quantities.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to bring lemon balm to the new world and planted it in his Monticello garden.

What Does It Do?

Lemon balm contains a wealth of chemicals that may contribute to its anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and sedative effects. One study has identified rosmarinic acid as a potential chemical that may act on GABA receptors.

Lemon balm may stimulate GABA receptors, but it's been suggested that it also appears to reduce the amount of corticosterone in mice. A combination of increasing GABA and decreasing stress hormones makes lemon balm doubly appealing when it comes to sleeplessness.

What to Look Out for

Lemon balm contains a wide variety of chemicals, including one also found in the pungent mosquito-repelling plant citronella. It may not be appropriate for those with allergies.


Historical Facts

Melatonin may not be an herb, but it's worthy of discussion as a great sleep aid. Before the chemical was discovered, though, humans had figured out that humans have a sleep/wake cycle. 

We've always instinctively known that a quiet, dark space was best for sleeping and that most people are tired at night and more chipper during the day. As knowledge of anatomy became more systematized, scientists hypothesized that the small, pinecone-like region of the brain called the pineal gland was involved in sleep.

Melatonin was first isolated in 1958 from a cow's pineal gland, though it wasn't understood as the vital hormone in the sleep/wake cycle until a few years later. Further research has also shown that melatonin is an antioxidant, and it seems to also have an effect on the immune system.

The first patent for a melatonin supplement for sleep was approved in 1996. Since then, it's become a common ingredient in many supplements and natural sleep remedies.

What Does It Do?

Melatonin serves as a signal to the body to get ready for sleep. Concentrations in humans typically peak between midnight and 8 AM. However, melatonin production can be stalled by nighttime light, especially the blue light that comes from your phone or TV.

The sleep/wake cycle shifts and changes throughout your life. Teens and young adults typically have delayed melatonin release, which can lead to them being night owls. Melatonin production also starts to dip in middle age, which can make it difficult to stay asleep.

Supplemental melatonin is used as a prescription drug for sleep disorders in many European countries. In the US, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggested melatonin as a treatment for Delayed Sleep/Wake Sleep Disorder (DSWSD).

What to Look Out for

Melatonin supplements can vary widely in how much of the active ingredient they have. Higher doses also tend not to have a stronger effect but just increase the period of sleepiness.

Only use supplemental melatonin from a reputable company that you trust.

Where to Find the Best Herbs for Sleep

Nested Natural's LUNA supplement features L-theanine, valerian, chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm, and hops. This blend of herbs to help you sleep works with your body to set a more natural, healthier sleep schedule.

GABA and melatonin are also included to give your body a natural boost when it comes to sleep. If you're struggling with sleep, check out LUNA and see how it can help you.